Subject: IPS: Ex-generals Ready for Battle in July Poll

POLITICS-INDONESIA: Ex-generals Ready for Battle in July Poll

Andreas Harsono

JAKARTA, Apr 23 (IPS) - In mid-May 1998, as rioters were ransacking business areas and looting properties owned by Chinese Indonesians in Jakarta, Gen Wiranto, then Indonesia's military chief, was approached by his number two, Lt Gen Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

According to Yudhoyono's biography 'Sang Demokrat' (The Democrat), President Suharto himself bunkered in his residence on a leafy street in Central Jakarta as student protesters were occupying the parliament building and demanding that he step down from power.

Yudhoyono asked Wiranto: ''Do you have any plan to take over power?'' Wiranto replied, ''No. I don't have any shred of idea about taking over power. It is unconstitutional.''

Yudhoyono immediately shook Wiranto's hand, saying: ''Sir, if that is the case, and I am with you!''

This conversation was unknown to the public until Yudhoyono published his biography two months ago.

Today, six years later, Wiranto and Yudhoyono - both retired - are still popular because of their decision not to grab power and allow Suharto to exit, thus ushering Indonesia's transition to democracy.

Today they are candidates competing with civilian counterparts in the Jul. 5 presidential race, and challenging too their former boss, President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Looking back, the two military officers' decision to keep the military out won kudos on the grounds that it allowed Indonesia the space for change - in succeeding years, the country held a democratic election, a referendum in East Timor and civilian governments began to lead the country.

After all, in the days leading up to Suharto's stepping down from power on May 21, 1998, there were hawkish generals who planned to crack down on protesters like Chinese officials did in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yudhoyono's Democrat Party got seven percent of the parliamentary votes during the Apr. 5 vote, while Wiranto won Golkar Party's presidential nomination on Tuesday - thus setting the stage for their candidacies.

Golkar, which Suharto created in the sixties, is now the strongest political party after 20 percent of the votes. After the Apr. 5 vote, it is set to control almost a quarter of the 550-strong parliament. Megawati's party only secured the second position with 19 percent of votes.

But the two military officers' popularity is not without controversy.

Wiranto, who used to be an adjutant to Suharto, was indicted for crimes against humanity last year by U.N.-backed prosecutors in East Timor. Prosecutors there charge that he failed to stop his soldiers and pro-Indonesia militia from killing nearly 1,500 people in 1999, after East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.

Wiranto has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claimed that he had tried to stop the violence.

Testifying at one of the Human Rights Court hearings instituted in Jakarta to look into the East Timor debacle -- no military figures were convicted -- he argued that the East Timorese had anyway been fighting each other ''for 23 years'' since the Indonesian invasion in 1975.

Yudhoyono's candidacy also has controversy although he is not as widely accused as his former boss.

According to John Miller of the New York-based East Timor Action Network, as Wiranto's chief of territorial affairs, Yudhoyono took no action on reports that the Indonesian soldiers and militia were intimidating the East Timorese in advance of the U.N.-run referendum.

''Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's record shows that as president he is unlikely to rein in Indonesia's increasingly assertive military. The former general is also unlikely to support genuine efforts to hold members of the security forces accountable for crimes against humanity in East Timor and Indonesia,'' said Miller.

But East Timor is not a big political issue in the psyche of most Indonesians today. It was a former Portuguese colony, unlike the other Dutch-controlled parts of Indonesia. East Timor is also a relatively poor and much smaller territory of around 800,000 people, quite tiny compared with Indonesia's 220 million people.

This psyche is also well understood by the foreign diplomats in Jakarta. ''We can work with anybody that comes out from a free (election) process,'' U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce said on Thursday.

East Timor Attorney General Longinus Montero said Sunday that Wiranto's trial might not materialise due to lack of evidence. Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said: ''We have to work with whoever wins.''

Wiranto's and Yudhoyono's appeal inside Indonesia is straightforward. They come from the main island of Java, whose ethnic population accounts for some 40 percent of Indonesia's various ethnic groups. The two generals have relatively deep pockets. To some voters, their military background is a positive quality when it comes to security and decisiveness - traits they have missed under Megawati.

Wiranto has been criss-crossing the archipelago in the past six months to seek support. He defeated Akbar Tanjung, the chairman of Golkar party who lost the presidential nomination in a tight party vote, and received 315 votes against Tanjung's 227.

Yudhoyono, who stepped down from Megawati's cabinet in March, is the frontrunner in the presidential pace, according to opinion polls. His television appearances have helped boost his personal approval rating as would-be president to 43 percent in an April poll by a private institute.

A defection by Tanjung's former rival, Jusuf Kalla, to run as Yudhoyono's vice president, is also likely to split the Golkar vote on Jul. 5. The U.S.-educated Yudhoyono is also highly favoured by Indonesia's western allies.

But if, as is widely expected, no single candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the July presidential election, a runoff between the two candidates with the strongest showing will be held Sep. 20. At this point, Yudhoyono and Megawati are quite certain of passing the first election.

Paulus Januar of the Indonesian Catholic Solidarity for Democracy, a caucus of politicians with Catholic backgrounds, however, says the political scene is by no means settled.

Wiranto's and Yudhoyono's candidacies might yet split voters who favour a strong president, he said: ''It might help Megawati because she will be seen as the only candidate with nationalist credentials.''

Now the battle lines have been drawn between the two retired generals, who in 1998 whispered about how they wanted to support Indonesia's democratisation process. Whether they can prove this to covers is something yet to be seen. (END/2004)

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